The book on 2020 has closed, but for many small businesses, the problems of the pandemic are frighteningly present.
Local businesses, big and small, have been hit. Disney has announced plans to lay off more than 30,000 employees, local restaurants have closed, and movie theaters haven’t been able to make a buck.
Even so, local business leaders say there are still some reasons to be optimistic. Production of a coronavirus vaccine continues, distribution is in process, and an app to coordinate it all is barreling through beta testing. And for businesses that have relied on federal assistance in some form, the swearing-in of Joe Biden into the presidency could mean extra investment in a COVID-19 response.
Lawmakers already pushed through a bill in December that included $900 billion in spending for coronavirus relief, and some of that money will be available to local businesses.
That money will be funneled through the controversial and much-criticized Payroll Protection Program.
“Clearly there’s been plenty of money spent to try and prop up the economy. For some small businesses it will be enough to get them through but others won’t be salvageable,” said Steve Rosansky, president of the Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce.
Curfews across the state have complicated how local businesses operate, but with little to no enforcement of state-mandated social distancing protocols, some businesses have been able to stay in the game.
“I’ve talked to some restaurants who are doing better than they did last year,” Rosansky said.
While the money from the latest stimulus is far less than the bill passed in the spring, there are some new benefits. This time around, businesses can apply for money to keep employees on payroll and receive a tax credit if they can hold onto the employee. Last spring, businesses could only apply to one program, not both.
Also on the horizon: the vaccine. Orange County is in the process of expanding its list of vaccination sites and has already secured a high capacity vaccination site at Disneyland.
“I think there’s a glimmer of hope with news of the vaccine and the stimulus, but I also think there’s more despair than there ever has been,” said Ed Hart, a professor at Cal State Fullerton who specializes in family-owned business. “Everyone knows there’s massive need out there to rebound. Obviously our physical health is important but I think the health of our businesses are equally important.”
Both stimulus packages have been panned as inefficient, demonstrating the unprecedented scale of such an endeavor. And bitter fights over how much money goes where will continue to play out in Washington. That includes a $600 dollar check to most Americans, even to those who have jobs or haven’t had significant interruptions in income.
“If there were a way we could find to get the money to people who need it – there are people out there who aren’t going to eat if they don’t get that money," Hart said.
The bill would allow small businesses to get assistance amounting to three-and-a-half times payroll, with $69 billion going to vaccination efforts nationwide.
Help has arrived just as businesses need it, but Hart wonders if it's enough. He said some of the family businesses he works with had brought retired parents or grandparents back in to punch the clock.
Rosansky isn’t sure how much any aid can help without the security of a vaccine and the infrastructure to administer it.
“I think it’s enough for right now. March 1st? I don’t know,” he said. “We’ll have to talk about it again.”